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Student Teacher: Nikhil Goyal and His Learning Revolution

News & Features | February 4, 2013

Nikhil Goyal is utterly captivated by education reform. He recently published a book expressing his ideas of what is needed for a total transformation of American public education. His website boasts that his work has appeared in publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and NPR. He’s appeared on MSNBC, FOX and Friends, FOX Business, and NBC Nightly News. Forbes recently named him as part of their 30 Under 30: Education list.  These would be eye-catching accomplishments for anyone, but Goyal is just 17-years-old.

Goyal’s book, entitled One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School was born as a vehicle for a young, brave thinker to release his ideas. He became inspired by education reform while on a family trip to India in 2010, where he observed the Indian school system, along with its problems and assets. After taking a lot of notes and in turn paying close attention to his own educational environment in Long Island, Goyal realized that American schools were in need of a serious redesign.

“I was frustrated,” he explains. “I felt that what I was learning really had no value to what would be useful in the real world, many years down the road.” But when he started speaking out, Goyal realized that in the arenas where students had a voice, all too often, the ‘stakeholders’ of the actual issues were nowhere to be found. “It was a student conversation,” Goyal says. “So I decided that the best way to really document my views, and to outline some of my thoughts on this issue…was to write a book and present my perspective— as a student in the system for almost thirteen years.”

Goyal may have a very impressive résumé of published work, a covetable number of connections, and describe himself as ‘one of the best kids in class’ growing up, but he is not an overachiever in the typical sense. He’s atypical because he acts out. He says his high school’s administration hasn’t offered any sort of comment for all of his efforts and the resulting publicity. “I think they try to ignore me as much as possible,” he jokes. This seems intuitive, given his vocal criticism of the very system they represent.

Despite this lack of a response from his own school, Goyal has no shortage of support. He says that he receives many e-mails daily from students, educators, and parents, just to let him know they appreciate his work. While Goyal originally thought he was alone, he quickly learned otherwise. “I thought I was one of the few people who believed these kinds of things,” he admits, “But I realized that there are so many students who have so many similar sentiments to mine… and they wanted to do something about it.”

 

While his deliberate attempt to improve education may have started much later, Goyal reflects on the first time he felt slighted by the system. It was third grade, when he underperformed on a standardized English test. “I was pretty demoralized and depressed with myself,” he admits. “As somebody who was a voracious reader—I read all the time—I couldn’t understand how this beautiful language was being boiled down to a set of multiple choice questions about a passage that I had no interest in reading.”

While some may not take Goyal seriously due to his age, his ideas are thorough and sincere, even if some are quite ambitious. “My philosophy on education,” he explains, “is just that learning really needs to be about the learners. It’s about the children in the classroom. And I think we really need to move away from this “drill-kill-bubble fill” culture, as I call it, to more of a learning environment that is based on curiosity [and] creativity.” He often stresses the importance of giving students autonomy and individuality when it comes to their education, rather than focusing on ‘compliance and control.’ He also despises standardized testing and other uniform systems of assessment.

When asked about the first thing he’d change about American schools if he had the authority, Goyal doesn’t miss a beat. He’d repeal the No Child Left Behind Act and the Race to the Top Program. “They are two government programs that have miserably failed…Students are angry, teachers are angry, parents are angry.” But it’s about more than just that: “Education is not a race,” he argues, “It’s a journey. It’s not a competition, it’s not some kind of carrots-and-sticks game; it’s something that children undergo every single day.” He follows up by saying he’d also make the move to abolish grades and shift to a more holistic, assessment-based system of student evaluation.

Goyal’s ideas contain a healthy mix of concrete plans and more philosophical adjustments. Something he’s been thinking about recently, he explains: “We should get rid of the word ‘teacher.’ I don’t like that word. Teachers should be collaborators; they should be facilitators and mentors. When I think about the word ‘teacher,’ I think of someone telling you what to do all the time: ‘You have to do this.’ ‘You have to follow directions.’ Learning just shouldn’t be like that.”

This mantra—“learning just shouldn’t be like that”—seems to show up a lot for Goyal. He goes on to say: “We shouldn’t be separating kids who use their hands from kids who don’t. We shouldn’t be separating kids by age, because the research shows that we should be grouping kids by their ability, as well as having some sort of age-segregated groups when necessary.” For this young man, fresh out of the system himself, his ideas are more than propositions: they are obligations to the student population of our country.

Goyal understands the value of inquisitiveness, and detests all attempts to squelch the eagerness to learn. “In school,” he believes, “you have teachers who favor the right answer rather than asking a good question. We care about getting the right answer, getting the solution, getting those high test grades, those spotless scantron sheets, instead of asking those great questions and posing pragmatic solutions.”

In the coming months, as a high school graduate, Goyal plans to spend most of his time speaking and reading, as well as launching his organization, Learning Revolution. He is deferring his college education until 2014. He cites his position as a young person as both an obstacle and an asset to his aspirations, but plans to keep working to get policymakers’ attention. He describes the publication of his book as a sort of ‘inauguration’ rather than an eventual goal in itself. And regardless of his age, Goyal is mature enough to recognize the potential for correction and improvement in his work. He says, “I’m not saying I’m right all the time, what I’m offering is a fresh perspective.”